When Can I Call Myself a Coder?
Is it about technical skills, a fancy career title, or a different way of thinking?
Prior to several weeks ago, I don’t think I ever deeply pondered when I could use certain professional labels for myself. When I was in college, I never debated whether or not to tell people I was a student. When I got my first real internship, I didn’t flinch to say I was an intern. And during the several jobs I’ve had since, I’ve continued to take for granted the ability to answer someone when asked The Question (“What do you do?”). Then, I made a deliberate decision to 1) stop working as a client services professional, and 2) to learn how to code. My goal from the very beginning felt simple enough: I would reenter the workforce as someone who sat on the technical side of things. However, what to call myself during and after this process became very confusing.
Yes, during the boot camp, I was a student. But what kind? What was I learning how to be? Typically I would say something like “I’m in a coding boot camp learning how to be a web developer,” but I was careful not to make statements like “I’m a coder.” After boot camp ended and I inevitably got The Question, I found myself stumbling over my answer even more. It would usually go something like “Well, I just finished a coding program, so now I am looking for a job! But I used to be xyz” (accompanied by a nervous laugh and a shrug). If someone had asked me straight up if I was a coder, I would have probably said something along the lines of “hopefully some day!” or “working on it!” And it’s easy enough to argue that these are examples of imposter syndrome rearing its ugly head. But is there more to it?
The fact of the matter is that many people are choosing to go back to school or boot camps to change their career trajectories by learning an entirely new set of skills, and before writing this article, I would have said that it’s unfair to treat this transition, for example, like going to get a haircut.
Think about it. If you have long hair and you want to change that, you go get it chopped off (tastefully, of course!) Before you walked into the salon, you had long hair. Walking out of the salon, you have short hair. You used to be a long-haired human, and now, you are a short-haired human. This is a simple binary switch that’s easy to explain.
But when you decide to learn how to code, you make a ton of micro-decisions and go through countless transitions over an extended period of time. It is not linear or binary, and up until recently, it’s been quite complicated for me to explain, both internally and externally. When you open your laptop on the first day of learning, are you a coder? Upon setting up a local development environment, are you a coder? How about after making your first pull request? Printing ‘Hello, world!’ to the terminal? What about when you walk out of boot camp on the last day after you’ve turned in your final project? Certainly then you can call yourself a coder, right?
The many flavors of ‘coder’
If you’re like me and feel anxiety start to creep up as soon as someone asks The Question, hopefully this article will make you feel a little better.
First, let’s address the fact that it might be hard to decide whether or not you’re a coder when there are so many different job titles in the world of coding. Here are just a few:
- Software Engineer — A software engineer is “a person who applies the principles of software engineering to the design, development, maintenance, testing, and evaluation of computer software.” Clear as mud.
- Web developer — A web developer is “a programmer who specializes in, or is specifically engaged in, the development of web applications using a client–server model.”
- Back end web developer — A web developer who focuses on “the interaction between server-side frameworks, the web server, and a database system.”
- Programmer — A computer programmer “is a person who creates computer software. The term computer programmer can refer to a specialist in one area of computers, or to a generalist who writes code for many kinds of software.”
As you can tell from above, there’s quite a bit of overlap and interchangeability among roles, but they all have some foundational elements in common, one of which is the knowledge of how to write code for computer programs. That’s a helpful clue!
“To be is to do”
As the list of programmer types suggests, there’s something that ties together every kind of coder. With that in mind, let’s get to the root of what a coder actually is. Here’s what rings true to me: “a coder is a person who can write code” (thanks devskiller).
I don’t typically mic drop, but that statement might warrant one. Being able to write code is arguably the most integral common thread that runs through the job functionalities of software engineers, front end developers, and computer programmers. According to this definition, if you can write code, you are a coder.
Looking at this definition, and then back at myself, and then back at this definition again, and then back at myself one more time, I realize I truly am a coder and I can absolutely call myself a coder. Eureka.
Of course, I may be a very green version of one, I may have a closer relationship with Google than the average industry professional, I may not believe in myself several times over, and then I may spend my daily commute affirming to myself aloud that in fact I am capable. Being a ‘good’ coder or a ‘highly skilled’ coder or even a ‘rockstar’ (eye roll) coder makes for a large gray area. But take the adjectives out, and it becomes much more black and white.
So now let’s go back to the great label debate with all the tools and information necessary to decide that for ourselves. Here’s my answer: I know how to write code in specific computer programming languages (thankfully, there’s no decided upon frequency for how much of the time that code actually works), so yes, I am a coder. How about you?
If you’re still unsure, think about little kids for a moment. When an adult asks a three and three-quarters-of-a-year-old child how old they are, there’s a good chance that child will answer with ‘three and three quarters.’ But if someone asked an adult the same question, do you think that adult would answer with ‘thirty one and two thirds’? How about absolutely not. When someone asks how old you are, you say your age and keep it moving. No big deal.
With some research and self reflection, I believe we can come forth with a bit more authority even if it started out shaky. Keep in mind: people who ask you what you do aren’t asking because they want to poke holes or summon the label police. If you know how to write code, you’re a coder.
Now, go fix some bugs!